Possibly the most influential and infamous thinker of the 19th century was Karl Marx (1818-1883). Now it must be said off the bat that you can’t really understand Marx unless you realize the socio-economic conditions in 19th century Europe. That could be a book in and of itself, and I am certainly not going to write a book on the socio-economic conditions of 19th century Europe. But if I was to crystalize the key thing to realize, it would be this: The Industrial Revolution was huge!
Let’s Consider the Industrial Revolution…and Enlightenment
With the Industrial Revolution came an entirely new reality that people were in the process of coming to terms with. And, as anyone who knows anything about history knows: life in Europe at the time was pretty grim and inhumane: child labor exploitation, countless deaths in the factories, poverty wages, the list could go on. The giants of industry were amassing unheard of wealth, while the common people were starving and dying in coalmines and factories.
In 1832, a major reform act passed in England, and that marked the beginning of some much needed changes, and in fact, throughout the rest of the century, lives of common workers did slowly but steadily improve in terms of wages and cost of living. That is not to say that they had it easy—working textile factories and coalmines is still back-breaking, dehumanizing work. And because that was the new reality, it obviously caused people to contemplate the state of humanity, morality, and human rights.
Another thing to remember is that the 19th century was still coming off the heels of the French Revolution. The ideals and views of the Enlightenment still held tremendous sway. Why is this important to remember? I’ll put it this way: given the new reality and challenges of the Industrial Revolution, people like Marx took their cue from the Enlightenment and proceeded to craft their own philosophical worldview that they felt would best address those challenges.
“I Love Hegel, I Hate Hegel; I Love Hegel, I Hate Hegel”
In order to begin to understand Marx, one has to understand how Marx came to his philosophical worldview. He basically took Hegel’s concept of the dialectic of Absolute Mind (as touched upon in my last post), mixed in Feuerbach’s complete rejection of any sort of spiritual realm, and came up with the Marxist notion of dialectical materialism.
What this means is that, unlike Hegel, Marx did not see history as that of the struggle of competing ideas that will eventually “evolve” into the Absolute Mind. Rather, he viewed history as that of an “evolution” of economic struggle—i.e. dialectical materialism. Marx was convinced that the problem of human suffering was rooted in economics, pure and simple. He argued that human history has been the history of class struggle—economic classes have always been locked in a perpetual struggle, and by the mid-19th century (according to Marx), there were only two economic classes left: the capitalist bourgeoisie business owners, and the working-class proletariat masses.
The bourgeoisie, although consisting of only a minority of people, held all the levers of power, both in business and in government, and they used that power to subjugate, and essentially enslave, the majority proletariat masses. All the bourgeoisie cared about was making money, and they didn’t care one bit about the suffering and plight of the proletariat workers. The bourgeoisie will always find ways of increasing their profit margin, and they will always look for ways to pay the proletariat less and less, thus keeping them in subjugation.
Eventually though, according to Marx, the proletariat would realize the power they have. They, being in the majority, would rise up against the bourgeoisie, exterminate the bourgeoisie class, take control of the means of production, the banks, and the government itself. Then the elite leaders of the proletariat would form a temporary dictatorship of the proletariat, and would set up a communist system in which all goods and services will be equally distributed to all.
Simply put, the temporary dictatorship of the proletariat would determine the collective good of the society. Everything will be set up for the common good—to each according to his ability; to each according to his need. And thus, according to Marx, once that utopian communist system is set up, we will have a classless society—everything will be equal, everyone will be happy, and everyone will perform to the peak of his/her natural ability. If the French Revolution declared the general will of the people to be the deity, Marx said, “Sure, but there is no deity—just people, and the dictatorship of select few among the proletariat (i.e. the elite) should decide what is best for everyone.”
Upheaval in 1848…but then…
Things in Europe came to a head in 1848, when various workers’ parties threatened the political stability of governments throughout Europe. It was in 1848 that Marx wrote his infamous Communist Manifesto. He was convinced that the apocalyptic final battle between the proletariat and bourgeoisie was about to happen…but it didn’t. Governments and businesses made concessions, and life improved slightly for workers. Overtime, due to the economic engine that the Industrial Revolution kick-started, along with governments and businesses realizing they couldn’t push the common worker around, the standard of living improved across the board.
When the upheaval of 1848 died down, and Marx’s hope for a communist uprising all over Europe didn’t materialize, Marx—having been kicked out of Germany and France—retreated to England. He spent the last 35 years of his life in the British Library, writing the incomprehensible and incoherent Capital, in which he advocated for the absolute destruction of capitalism, the abolition of private property, the annihilation of religion, and an establishment of the communist utopia.
The irony of Marx’s life was that that man who championed the common worker, hardly ever worked a day in his life. He simply refused to get a job. Instead, he lived off an inheritance from his father; and then when that ran out, he was supported by his fellow communist collaborator, Frederick Engels, who had inherited his father’s textile business. That’s right, Engels, for all practical purposes, was a rich, industrial capitalist, and Marx benefited from it. Instead of working at a job to support his family, Marx mooched off his communist/capitalist friend and wrote about the destruction of the capitalist system that supported him.
What Marxism Has Wrought
It should not be surprising to find that Marx’s dialectical materialism and his utopian vision of a classless society has been the root cause of the absolutely worst human atrocities in human history, as the entire 20th century can attest to. Now, although Marx did rightly shine a spotlight on many of the injustices of early industrialization, the fact is that everything in his philosophy is naïve, baseless, and simply wrong.
First off, up until the time of Marx there was no such thing as “capitalism.” What 19th century liberal/radical philosophers dubbed as “capitalism” was nothing more than what human beings have always done: buy, sell, and trade things. “Capitalism” was no more a “top-down, superimposed system” than a child’s lemonade stand, buying food at your local market or grocery store, or trading baseball cards. It was a term that 19th century Socialists like Marx made up in order to further their agenda to “tear the whole thing down.”
Granted, with the Industrial Revolution, the newly-invented machines of progress did usher in an entirely new type of production, workforce, and scenarios. And with that came horrible abuses and outright immoral actions of many of the lords of industry. No one can possibly justify the oppression and abuses to children working in the mines, etc. Marx was indeed correct to speak out against such abuses. But his fundamental problem was that his analysis of such abuses had absolutely no basis within his own proposed worldview. By attempting to reduce everything to economic causes, not only did Marx utterly fail to understand the true nature of evil, he ended up subverting the very notion of evil itself.
After all, in Marx’s worldview of dialectical materialism, since there is no God and therefore no real right and wrong or good and evil (but only the constant dialectic of materialistic and economic forces) then to decry the abuses and evil of “capitalism” is a nonsequitur. Capitalism cannot “commit abuses” because according to dialectical materialism, there are no such things as “abuses,” and there is no such thing as “evil.” The very basis for Marx’s critique of “capitalism,” simply put, does not exist within his worldview of dialectical materialism, and hence, his very accusations against capitalism are a complete contradiction of his dialectical materialistic worldview.
Marxism vs. Christianity
What Marx was doing, was in fact borrowing the notion of “evil” from Christianity. One of the most common themes in the entire Bible is God’s anger towards those who oppress and mistreat the poor and needy. But whereas the biblical basis for such judgment against those who oppress the poor and needy is that since the poor and needy are made in God’s image, abuses against the “least of these” is an affront to God himself. Therefore, godly behavior consists of caring for the poor and needy, whereas ungodly and evil behavior consists of abusing and oppressing the poor and needy. But in Marxism, the basis for judgment against the oppression of the poor does not exist. In fact, there is no moral basis, for there is no such thing as morality—just the dialectical progress that will ultimately result in a classless system. Capitalism itself cannot be called “evil,” but rather just another step in dialectical materialism.
Justification for Mass Murder
And this leads to a truly diabolical mindset—in Marxism, there really is no such thing as evil. Marx claimed his analysis of class struggle was purely “scientific” and “objective” (which would be utterly surprising to anyone who ever has read his rantings against capitalism, and virtually anyone else with whom he disagreed!). Marx stated that it was simply inevitable that the bourgeoisie would be annihilated, and that it was simply inevitable that millions would “perish in a revolutionary holocaust.” For Marx, killing of the bourgeoisie was not “murder”—for “murder” was simply a bourgeoisie notion imposed upon the subservient proletariat class to keep them in line.
It therefore is not surprising at all to find that Marx’s disciples—notably Lenin, Stalin, and Mao—were so nonchalant about the millions upon millions of people they killed: it was just the inevitable process of dialectical materialism. It wasn’t murder; it wasn’t genocide—it was scientific, inevitable and necessary for the good of mankind. Yes that’s right—killing and enslaving human beings for the good of humanity was a foundational plank of Marxist philosophy and later Communist ideology. One can see the roots of such philosophy within Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of “forcing people to be free” if they went against the “general will of the people,” which was equated with the “divine sovereign.”
That is why it utterly baffles me when some people try to distance the atrocities of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao from Karl Marx, by claiming they distorted Marx’s philosophy—because it was Marx himself to stated that not only did the bourgeoisie have to be annihilated, but also that countless groups of people who were not yet sufficiently advanced to accept the dictatorship of the proletariat would simply have to be wiped out. Let’s be clear: the mass murder of the 20th century Communist regimes was clearly stated and championed by Marx’s own philosophy.
Did I Mention How Much Marx Hated Christianity?
There is another key element of Marxist philosophy that needs to be addressed: Marx’s utter disdain for religion, particularly Christianity. There is no doubt that he inherited his hatred of religion from the so-called Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century. Yet it was Marx who coined the term that defined religion as “the opium of the people.” What he meant by this was that “religion” was an entirely bourgeois concept that was forced upon the poor proletariat masses in order to keep them in line and subservient—the whole “obey your masters and you’ll have mansions in heaven” bit. At least that’s how Marx portrayed religion. Furthermore, Marx argued that religion was in fact a tool of capitalists to rationalize the oppression of the poor and maintain their own economic power.
Therefore, for Marx, part of the Proletariat revolution was not simply a revolt against capitalism, but also a revolt against “capitalistic religion” that tried to “keep them down.” Destruction of the free market economy and the annihilation of religion—that was what Marx considered “progress.” Sheer atheistic communism was the utopian, classless society that Marx believed was the inevitable destiny of mankind.
Again, it should come as no surprise to find that the worst persecution of Christianity over the past 2,000 years has come at the hands of Communist dictators like Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. In fact, more Christians were martyred during the 70 years of the USSR than all Christians who were martyred in the previous 1900 years of Christianity. The systematic targeting and attempted liquidation of Christians in the Soviet Union and Communist China was the logical out-workings of Marx’s original worldview and philosophy.
Here’s the Point
One of the things that startles me about today’s America is the growing number of people who consider themselves Marxist, or who say that Marxism is a good idea and that men like Lenin and Stalin simply distorted what Marx was saying, or that Marx got some things right, etc. I’m willing to admit that some of Marx’s critiques of the dangers of capitalism were correct, and that some of his specific proposals have merit. That’s not the issue.
The issue is that of his underlying philosophical outlook of dialectical materialism. The issue is his contention that “class struggle” was just an inevitability and that he was putting forth some sort of objective, scientific analysis. The issue is that his underlying outlook is positively amoral, containing no concept of right or wrong, good or evil. It declares violent revolution to be the inevitable destiny for society, and it naively declares that the dictatorship of the proletariat will just melt away and give up dictatorial power when everything is equal.
But let’s face it, every dictator will be able to point to something that isn’t quite right yet, and thereby justify his dictatorial hold on power, and, with Marx’s own writing behind him, that dictator can use violent force…for the good of the State, of course…because the State is society, and the general will of society is all that matters…and the dictator must choose what is best for society.
Marx didn’t want reform; he didn’t want to right wrongs…for he denied the very concept of “right and wrong” as bourgeoisie attempts to control the masses. He wanted violent revolution; he declared it was inevitable, and therefore preferable.